SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details about tonight’s Empire Season 3 premiere.

The third season of Empire started tonight with a bang – literally.

Picking up directly from the balcony battle between the once-pregnant Rhonda Lyon and the now freshly married and very pregnant Anika Calhoun-Lyon, Fox’s hit drama created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong opened Season 3 tonight with Kaitlin Doubleday’s Rhonda plummeting 50 stories and crashing onto the roof of a parked car. In the meantime, Grace Byers’ Anika escaped almost certain death at the hands of Rhonda’s husband Andre when her water broke.

That was just in the opening minutes of the season premiere which tackled PTSD, gun violence and the timely topic of Black Lives Matters. It also brought some recently introduced characters to the fore on the Big 4 blockbuster starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.

FOX's 'Empire' Panel at the TCA Summer Press Tour, Day 12, Los Angeles, USA - 08 Aug 2016

As production on the latest season is now onto Episode 7 and writing Episode 12, I chatted with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about the big-bang opener and the politics — network and otherwise — of bringing Black Lives Matters to primetime. The L Word co-creator also hinted at what is coming next this season, how much of guest star Mariah Carey we will really see, Empire’s musical reinvigoration, and how Big 4 TV needs to get back into the Emmy-winning business.

DEADLINE: Why was it Kaitlin Doubleday’s Rhonda character that had to die in the opening scenes of tonight’s premiere?

CHAIKEN: My answer to that is not that it was Rhonda that had to die. You know, we tried to let that story tell itself, because there’s no behind-the-scenes. We weren’t punishing an actor. It was not punitive. It was not like she behaved badly or we didn’t like her. We love — and all of us, I’m talking about me, Lee, Danny, all of the writers, all of the producers — love both of those women, and really had a very, very hard time thinking of letting go of either of them.

But we knew the minute we committed to that ending in Season 2, somebody had to die. You know, it would just be lame. You know, did she bounce on the awning one floor below and climb in the window, or can’t we keep them both somehow – we talked about it. But, in the end, somebody had to die when you have a fight like that 50 stories up. We felt that the way in which we left the last season absolutely called for continuous action. There was no choice.


DEADLINE: Rhonda was the target of barbs from other members of the Lyon family, especially Lucious and Cookie. To put it plain, they didn’t like their son being with a white woman, and this death must have elements in that, even though it was Anika who pushed Rhonda off the balcony.

CHAIKEN: It plays a role in a sense. I mean, you know, it’s not as if we pretended that it wasn’t a factor. It was something that the Lyons talked about, and it has meaning in our world. So, it changes in some ways who Andre is in the world. You know, he was partly defined by the fact that he was married to a white woman who was the only member of this family, the only white member of this family — although Anika, we established, is of mixed race. It didn’t play a role in why Rhonda’s the one that wound up dying, but it’s certainly something we all talked about.

DEADLINE: You guys certainly didn’t give away between seasons if it was going to be Anika or Rhonda who died. How did you keep it under wraps in this social media day and age?

CHAIKEN: It was hard. We went to some lengths. All of the actors, and I, and the few others who do press, got asked many times. We discussed amongst ourselves that we would absolutely not reveal it. You know, we did a little press junket not too long ago in Chicago in which the entire cast was just constantly besieged by journalists trying to get somebody to slip up and give the answer – we didn’t slip up.

DEADLINE: So, Rhonda is dead, but are we going to see her appear throughout the season in flashbacks or as a ghost?

CHAIKEN: (laughs) You may – or not!

DEADLINE: You’ve planted a lot of seeds in Season 2 that look to grow in Season 3. One of those has to be if Andre will ever know that it was Anika who pushed Rhonda down the stairs in the Season 2 midseason finale and caused her to lose their baby.

CHAIKEN: Although he doesn’t explicitly know it, I think we must feel that he knows it on some level. On some level, Andre knows that he not only lost his wife in that moment, but he lost his wife because of the existence of this other child. Because the reason that Anika expressed was that she pushed Rhonda down the stairs because she wanted her baby to be the sole heir to the throne.


DEADLINE: So, this is a live wire for Season 3?

CHAIKEN: That story is definitely still playing through Season 3. Lucious made a comment in our Season 2 finale that he was aware. He said, “I know you pushed her.” Whether he really knows it or whether that was just Lucious being a dick because he can, you know, he raised it, and it doesn’t go away. It definitely is still going to loom this year.

DEADLINE: Speaking of looming, Empire has touched on political and cultural issues before, but tonight’s season premiere went straight to talking about the topic of gun violence with Jamal’s song, and in the imagery onstage with him, backing the Black Lives Matter movement. With the number of African-Americans being fatally shot by police officers an ever-growing wound this election year, did Fox express concerns about such an explicit statement on the show?

CHAIKEN: We’ve never, ever been asked to pull back on that material, ever. We’ve been completely supported and encouraged by our partners at the studio and the network, and I think we all get excited when we feel like we’re capturing something that feels real and meaningful.

DEADLINE: Why now?

CHAIKEN: We decided to do it because we believe that that’s what Jamal, who was shot himself last season, would be singing about. We believe that it’s where these characters live, and we’re telling the stories that we believe. All of us on Empire feel like this show really does live in this moment in time, with all of the political and social currents of this moment in time, and we reflect them in the way that we think our characters would. We intersect our characters’ lives with what’s happening in the world, in a way that feels authentic to us.

I remember making television at a time when you couldn’t touch on that stuff, but it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore and I’m glad of that.

DEADLINE: Last season saw a decline in Empire’s still-massive ratings and viewership. Do you worry that statements like Jamal’s support of Black Lives Matter could affect the numbers going into the show’s third season?

CHAIKEN: You know, I try not to focus on numbers, because they’re beyond my control. I try to focus on the things that I’m responsible for. Of course, I’m filled with anxiety about whether or not we’re doing it as well and as entertainingly as we should be doing it, and whether the audience is still going to be there for it, but we really love what we’re doing this year. But I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule and we’re doing this now for the third year, and I think that we’ve gotten better. So, we’re feeling for Season 3 — me, Lee, Danny, the writers in the room, the actors on set — we all feel like we’re making a better show this year than we’ve ever made in the past.

DEADLINE: Like how?

CHAIKEN: Well, picking up on what we started in the second half of Season 2, we’re really focusing on our core characters of the Lyons. So, we haven’t felt the need as we go forward in our storytelling to create a whole bunch of new characters and look for those big, breathtaking moments from out in the universe, because they’re coming from inside the stories that we’re already telling, like with the Shyne character played by Xzibit, who we mentioned way back in Season 2, and Lucious’ half-brother Tariq, who we introduced in the Season 2 finale.

DEADLINE: So, trimming way back on big-ticket guest stars?

CHAIKEN: Well, there are some guest stars, but what we aren’t doing this season is creating stories specifically to accommodate those guest-star opportunities.

DEADLINE: Not even for Mariah Carey’s Kitty character coming later this season?

CHAIKEN: Look, Mariah’s a pretty huge star but we went to Mariah with a role. The role wasn’t created for her. It was a story we were telling, and then of course it was thrilling to have her come and say, “Yeah, I’ll do that character.” But that’s how we’ve approached the storytelling from beginning to end.

Mariah Carey Empire

DEADLINE: Mariah’s character is set to collaborate with Jamal musically — is there a set arc there?

CHAIKEN: It really depends on the story we’re telling. We look at it in terms of, if we had written that character and she had three episodes, it wouldn’t have been Mariah unless Mariah could give us those three episodes. As it happened, this was a one-episode story and a character who may come back in the second half of the season for another episode. But simply, we were looking for a musical star to play that role, and were lucky to get Mariah to play it.

DEADLINE: Talking about music, after two seasons, Timbaland has left as Empire’s music director. What happened there?

CHAIKEN: We felt like we needed a fresh infusion of musical inspiration in the show and it was the appropriate time to do it. The kind of musical canvas is bigger this year than it was in years past, and we needed to get the music really focused within the stories. We’re more hand-in-hand with the creation of the music this year, so I hope that that is apparent in the music and the work in the way that the stories and the music are working together. That’s what Rodney Jerkins, his new team, and Ester Dean are really delivering for us in a big way.

DEADLINE: Despite Taraji’s Lead Actress in a Drama nomination there was nothing delivered from the Emmys for the show this year – again. Do you feel Big 4 TV just isn’t a real player in those awards anymore?

CHAIKEN: I think those of who work on broadcast shows can’t resist commenting to one another that there are very few broadcast shows that are represented anymore. And the fact that Taraji was nominated is a remarkable thing, because when you look at the whole and the panoply of nominees, there are very few actors that aren’t on cable shows. So, you know, we know that those shows are favored for one reason or another.

I saw a tweet from Julie Plec in which she said there should be separate categories for shows that make more than 15 episodes — I’m really not sure what the answer is to that. But I’d like to think that we’ll just keep on trying to make great television, and that maybe sometime soon, we’ll kind of find our way back into that award conversation.